Blackburne, Francis (1782–1867), lord chancellor of Ireland (1852–3, 1866–7), was born 11 November 1782 at Footstown, Co. Meath, the only surviving son of Richard Blackburne (d. 1798), country gentleman, and Elizabeth Blackburne (née Hopkins) of Darvistown, Co. Meath, a descendant of Ezekiel Hopkins (qv), bishop of Derry at the time of the siege in 1689. He received his early education at the Rev. Hugh Nelson's school, Dunshaughlin, Co. Meath, and at the Rev. William White's, Dublin. His mother was concerned at his poor progress at school but his intellectual abilities flowered in his late teens and he entered TCD in 1798, graduating BA with a gold medal (1803). He entered Lincoln's Inn (1803) and was called to the Irish bar (1805), and within a few years had a thriving practice. In a celebrated case in 1817 he successfully defended Roger O'Conor, a barrister and magistrate for Co. Meath, from charges of robbing the Galway mail coach. At the bar and later on the bench he was noted for his clear and terse arguments and judgements. He was a skilful cross-examiner, never shouting or bullying, but would quietly lead witnesses to commit themselves.
A staunch tory, he was appointed KC in 1822. Charged with administering the insurrection act in Co. Limerick to suppress serious agrarian disturbances (1823–5), he managed to restore order to the county. He was appointed third serjeant-at-law (July 1826–19 April 1830) and second serjeant (19 April 1830–11 January 1831). Despite his toryism, the whigs appointed him attorney general of Ireland (11 January 1831–28 April 1835) and made him an Irish privy councillor (1831). O'Connell (qv) was outraged at his appointment and denounced him as ‘the anti-whig, the no-popery orator, the Bible and tract calumniator, the enemy of emancipation’ (Burke, 286). On 18 January 1831 he initiated a prosecution of O'Connell and five associates under the proclamation act, and took action against several anti-government newspapers, including a successful prosecution of the O'Connellite Pilot in 1833. O'Connell termed him a ‘vile Orange tool’ and believed he had great influence over the Irish government and in fact was ‘the mainstay of Orangeism at the Castle’ (O'Connell corr., v, 74, 182). He repeatedly pressed the government to dismiss Blackburne as attorney general, even at the price of elevating him to the bench. During the tithe war of the early 1830s Blackburne undertook many prosecutions but found great difficulty in securing convictions, most notably of those charged with the murders of twelve policemen at Carrickshock, Co. Kilkenny, in December 1831. He resigned after the fall of Peel's (qv) 1834–5 administration, but was reappointed attorney general (28 September 1841–3 November 1842) when the tories returned to office. In this administration he was more in sympathy with the hardline tory lord lieutenant, Earl de Grey (qv), than with his moderate chief secretary, Edward Granville Eliot (qv). He became master of the rolls in Ireland (1 November 1842–23 January 1846) and chief justice of the queen's bench (23 January 1846–Febuary 1852), and in this capacity presided at the special commission at Clonmel which convicted the Young Ireland leaders of high treason (October 1848). Later that year he dealt with agrarian violence in Limerick, Clare, and Tipperary, and in 1851 with outbreaks of Ribbonism in Co. Monaghan. His severity in dealing with agrarian disturbances and his lack of sympathy for a poverty-stricken and often starving peasantry made him deeply unpopular with many liberals and nationalists.
In December 1851 he was appointed vice-chancellor of Dublin University, was awarded LLB and LLD (1852), and became a commissioner of national education (1852–3). He resigned when a number of books initially sanctioned by the commissioners for religious instruction in national schools (including Lessons on the truth of Christianity by Archbishop Richard Whately (qv)) were opposed by the catholic church and then excluded from the curriculum.
In Derby's first administration he served as lord chancellor of Ireland (10 March 1852–13 January 1853); as attorney general he had assisted Derby (qv) greatly when the latter served as chief secretary of Ireland (1830–33). He was appointed Ireland's first lord justice of appeal (October 1856–July 1866) in the newly established chancery court of appeal. Derby again offered him the lord chancellorship in 1858, but he declined because of his advanced age and poor health. In 1866, out of loyalty to Derby, he reluctantly became lord chancellor (24 July 1866–29 March 1867) as a compromise candidate between James Whiteside (qv) and Abraham Brewster (qv), but was dogged by ill-health and largely ineffective. Indisposed during the Fenian rising of March 1867, he resigned later that month. An address from the bar in April 1867 praised his ‘calm and impressive dignity, great grasp of mind [and] unequalled sagacity’ and noted that ‘in the history of this country no man ever filled so many high and judicial offices, and brought to the discharge of each such great and varied powers’ (Burke, 291). In May 1867 he declined a baronetcy. He resided in Dublin in Leinster St. and later in Merrion Square, and near Dublin at Roebuck Hall and Rathfarnham Castle. He died 17 September 1867 at Rathfarnham Castle, and was buried at Mount Jerome cemetery.
He married (1809) Jane, daughter of William Martley of Ballyfallan, Co. Meath; they had three sons and two daughters who survived beyond childhood.